A Comprehensive Guide to Semantics and Morphology in Linguistics

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When we use a word to refer to something, we are using its reference function. This function allows a word to "pick out an extralinguistic referent in the universe of discourse." References can be specific, non-specific, generic, or particular.


Denotation is the meaning we have in mind of the class of entity or the prototypical entity that the word designates, rather than the characteristic features of the entity.


A word fulfills the ideational/representational function when language is used to evoke ideas in our minds about the world. The sense of a word consists of knowing the characteristics that differentiate one entity from others. Generally, the larger the range of denotation, the smaller the sense.


An icon is a sign where there is similarity between the signifier and the signified (e.g., a portrait).


An index is a sign where the sign is naturally associated with its signified (e.g., smoke is an index of fire).


A symbol is a sign where there's a conventional link between the sign and the signified (e.g., black symbolizes mourning in some cultures).


Connotation refers to the meaning of a word associated with everything that a word calls up in our minds, including cultural images, emotional overtones (positive or negative), and evaluations.


Synonyms are different lexical units whose content is the same or partly the same.


Antonyms are lexical units that stand in a relationship of opposition in terms of sense. Types of antonyms include:

  • Gradable/scalar
  • Polar/contradictory
  • Complementary
  • Converse/implicational/reciprocal
  • Reversive/restitutive


Hyponyms are lexical items that stand in a hierarchical, general-specific relationship. The meaning of the general term includes the specific one.


Meronyms are lexical items that stand in a part-whole relationship. This relationship may also be hierarchical.


Collocation refers to a structural or syntactic relation, a meaning relation that a word contracts with other words occurring in the same sentence or text.


Morphology is the part of lexicology that deals with the nature and structure of words and their components (morphemes), as well as their arrangements in forming words.


Morphemes are the smallest units in a language associated with a meaning that may constitute words or parts of words. The characteristics of morphemes are:

  1. They are the smallest units in the sense that they cannot be broken down any further for the purpose of conveying meaning.
  2. They are meaningful units in the sense that they serve to establish a semantic relation between language and the world.

Morphemes are unanalyzable, recyclable units in the sense that they have the ability to convey a basic, stable, independent meaning in combination with other forms.


Some morphemes are carriers of lexical meaning (lexical morphemes); other morphemes are carriers of non-lexical meaning (grammatical morphemes). The former is part of the vocabulary resources (lexical morphology); the latter is part of the grammatical resources (morpho-syntax - inflectional morphology).

Both lexical and non-lexical morphemes can be free or bound. Free lexical morphemes are linguistic signs with primary meaning, typically belonging to open lexical classes.

Bound lexical morphemes are linguistic signs with secondary meaning attached to a free morpheme (or a lexical base - hence they are derivational affixes: i.e., prefixes or suffixes.

On the other hand, some lexical morphemes may occur only in combination with other morphemes. Such morphemes are bound lexical morphemes, or lexical roots (although never occurring alone, they nevertheless carry a primary, central meaning).

Non-lexical morphemes can also be free (typically belonging to closed classes of grammatical-functional elements: e.g., articles) or bound, occurring as inflectional markers in word-forms, i.e., morpho-syntactic realizations of lexical words, associated with a grammatical category with a closed set of paradigmatic terms. Such inflectional morphemes may occasionally have contextually-constrained realizations (in complementary distribution), called allomorphs.

In general, free and bound lexical formatives are more numerous (in the thousands) than affixes (in the hundreds).

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